Changing leads: Weathering the transition period

Here are some tips on how to navigate the issues and problems that arise when a new leader steps through the door


When experienced leaders move from their roles in one organization to assuming leadership in a new agency, everyone should expect a period of transition, and, whether smooth or bumpy, change is never easy. After the appointment is announced and effective date published, a flurry of preparation begins with broad speculation on the part of staff.

With a combination of anticipation and angst, staff usually engage in water cooler chit chat about the unknown leader. They wonder about professional background and experience, management style, personal life details, how strong to make the coffee, and if the office furniture should be re-arranged. Mostly, however, staff wonder just where they will land in the new organization and what part they will play in the big story.

Busy and competent administrative staff should be relied upon for answers to all kinds of questions related to the “settling in” process during transition. This group knows the answers and is able to use its contacts to pull any rabbit out of any hat.

Using experience and skill, they become protectors, calendar manipulators, public relations miracle workers, and never compromise confidentiality. Their most important talent is anticipating the new leader’s schedule and deadlines, and ensuring meetings begin and end on time; in short, they facilitate at every turn.

Deputy-level staff are eager to share in the details of the organization's operational mission and budget challenges. Mid-level managers want face time with the new leader as soon as possible and seek confirmation about their organizational roles. As the new leader attempts to gather information from these groups, a variety of competing ideas start swirling, sometimes erratically, regarding many issues and problems waiting to be solved.

These groups, as well as line staff, are trying to determine what new leadership model may be implemented and how they can best position themselves. During this period, the honeymoon wanes and communication becomes prickly, with mixed signals flying in all directions. New leaders should take heart, however. This often unpleasant period also leads to growth, understanding, and eventually clarity regarding mission, goals, objectives, and strategies.  

Leaders will do themselves a favor by observing and listening, becoming acquainted with the organization and its cast of characters. It is usually not a good idea to make immediate changes or start managing by memo. The “effective immediately” email is usually ineffective. Such emails are interpreted by staff as being bossy, domineering, and flat. New leaders are better off resisting such practice and, instead, using their chain of command until protocols are established. 

Policies and procedures hold the key for the philosophical nature of the organization’s purpose, as well as how the nuts and bolts of daily operations function. Becoming a student of policies is critical for the new leader.

After a welcoming, honeymoon period fades, new organizational leaders, regardless of their experience, will navigate through unstable waters early in their tenure. Gradually, however, a leadership style will reveal itself, and staff will adapt accordingly, in order to be part of the successful forward movement of team and mission.

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